The last convoy of US soldiers pulled out of Iraq on December 18, 2011, leaving Iraqis with mixed feelings: pride in gained sovereignty, but anxiety about sectarian violence and the inability of Iraq’s security forces to maintain peace on their own.
While publically Iraqis may have supported the withdrawal, in private, they often expressed reservations. Intelligence analysts shared their concerns, arguing that the withdrawal would leave a vacuum that sectarian militias would fill. Further, without troops in the country, the United States would retain little diplomatic leverage in Iraq.
Such a scenario appears most likely given the security and political trends in Iraq months prior to US withdrawal.
The security situation in Iraq has been deteriorating for months as Sunni insurgent groups and Shi’ite militia were carrying out almost daily attacks. Four days after the last American soldier departed, a wave of bombings killed 72 people in Baghdad. Subsequent attacks targeted Shi’ite religious commemorations. According to the Associated Press, 160 people died as the result of violence in Iraq since the beginning of 2012.
As Iraq analyst Michael Rubin has noted, Iraqis—up to and including Grand Ayatollahs in Najaf—may have wanted the American departure, but had second thoughts as its deadline loomed. There was a sharp divergence between Iraqi public demands for withdrawal and their private entreaties for the US troops to remain a little longer.
In addition to sectarian violence, a political crisis broke out between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki‘s Shi’ite-led government and Ayad Allawi’s secular and Sunni Islamist-backed Iraqiya bloc just days after the US withdrawl, compounding political deadlock. Inability to break the deadlock reduces confidence in the Iraqi government’s and its security forces‘ ability to govern independently and democratically.
Prior to the crisis, Iraqiya boycotted the parliament and cabinet in protest of Maliki’s consolidation of power, especially over state security forces. The crisis erupted when Deputy Prime Minister Salih al-Mutlaq called on al-Maliki to step down or face a vote of no confidence, while al-Maliki’s government issued an arrest warrant against Iraq’s top Sunni politician, Vice President (and Iraqiya member) Tariq al-Hashimi, on terrorism charges, including the accusation that he ran hit squads targeting government officials.
The Kurdish Wildcard
While al-Hashemi fled to the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq, Iraqi security forces have since detained at least 89 members of Iraqiya on terrorism charges. While there may be some truth to Maliki’s charges, Iraqiya leader Ayad Allawi added fuel to the sectarian fire when he accused al-Maliki of targeting minority Sunni politicians in an effort to hold onto power through creating a political crisis.
Al-Hashemi agreed to stand a trial, but insists he can only recieve a fair trial outside of Baghdad. For its part, the Kurdish leadership has refused to give him up unless Baghdad agrees to his demands. This represents a reversal, as Iraqi Kurds—wth the exception of outgoing Prime Minister Barham Salih—have since liberation cooperated more closely with Shi‘ite parties than with their Sunni counterparts, many of whose ties to Baathist parties draw Kurdish suspicions.
Since formally gaining federalism from Baghdad in 2004, Iraqi Kurds have fiercely guarded their autonomy, catapulting themselves from among Iraq’s poorest regions into its most affluent and secure areas. The Kurds may use their role as mediator to extract futher concessions on disputed territories not only in and around Kirkuk, but also around Mosul and through the Diyala governorate. Allawi’s coalition of Sunni Islamists and more secular former Baathists simply have more concessions to offer. Too much involvement in these disputes may also jeopardize Kurdistan’s relative stability and security. Maliki’s government may retaliate by seeking to undermine the Kurdish oil investment, and may also withhold Iraqi Kurdistan’s share of the greater Iraqi oil revenues.
Will there be Early Elections?
There is a tendency among Western diplomats to advocate for broad-based coalitions. These may look good on paper, but they are a recipe for inefficient government and they erode the accountability of political leaders. While Human Rights Watch, citing Maliki’s crackdown on opposition, has described Iraq as a “budding police state,” Maliki’s government was elected democratically—a rarity in the Middle East, and Maliki may simply be taking the steps necessary to implement the agenda of his backers.
Still, events bear watching. No longer needing to appease Western officials with armies on the ground, Maliki still should abide by the Iraqi constitution. Should Iraqiya sponsor a no-confidence vote, Maliki’s government may collapse. This would be a risky strategy for Allawi, however, whose ties to neighboring Arab states draw Iraqi suspicion and who previously was unable to former a coalition despite winning a plurality of seats in parliament. It was in this context that the Iraqi Foreign Ministry issued a statement chastising Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his meddling in Iraqi internal affairs. Indeed, one reason why Allawi and Hashemi may be playing the boycott card is simply because they do not have confidence that they could triumph politically.
Could the Arab Spring Come to Iraq?
Partly inspired by the Arab Spring events, Iraqi protesters have become increasingly vocal, even if their demands are less drastic than their equivalents in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Most Iraqis, be they Arabs or Kurds, have taken to the streets in both Baghdad and in Iraqi Kurdistan to demand improved services and a crackdown on government corruption.
While Human Rights Watch has warned about decreasing freedoms in Iraq, Maliki may figure he is immune from an Arab Spring replay. Iraqis are scarred by violence and decades of war and sanctions. Just as exhaustion led Algerians to stand aloof as protests swept the region, Maliki may figure that fears of state failure and civil war will keep Iraqi dissatisfaction with his government in check.
One thing is clear: In no immediate scenario does Iraq emerge as strong, secure, and stable. Without political stability and security, Iraqi’s rich natural resources and oil wealth will not translate into progress and development. Iraq may not fail immediately, but it appears doomed to slowly flounder with a trajectory toward sustained violence if not state failure. After more than nine years of war, nearly 5,000 coalition casualties and tens of thousand of Iraqi deaths, Iraq is losing all too quickly its hard-fought freedom and future.
Anna Borshchevskaya is assistant director of the Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center. This essay was first published in the Euro Atlantic Quarterly from the Slovak Atlantic Commission.